“…It was a dark and stormy night…”
He didn’t originally pen the words and others have used them to begin their books as well, but Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s inclusion of them in the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford was what eventually propelled them into the spotlight. In 1982 San Jose State Professor Scott Rice turned the phrase into the gold standard of “bad writing” by using it as the benchmark for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a literary competition that asks entrants to “compose opening sentences to the worst of all possible novels”. (The contest continues to this day).
He’s forever linked with those seven words and “bad writing”, but that isn’t the sum total of Lytton’s career by any means. According to the contest website, he was “more widely read in his time than Charles Dickens”. He also wrote The Last Days of Pompeii and coined other phrases still in use today: “the pen is mightier than the sword”; “the great unwashed”; “the almighty dollar”. Lytton was much more than the punch line now associated with his name.
Why does that matter?
We live in a world that loves to label. From medical diagnoses to job descriptions and everything in between, there’s a term for it and a corresponding slot to put people in. I’m an organization junkie so I understand the need, organizationally; having concise and consistent labels and constructs *can* help people get the appropriate medical treatment, find the job that best fits their gifts and talents, make sure they are in an environment where they can learn, but there is a huge downside as well. Unfortunately, once a label is applied it sticks and, to everyone’s detriment, that one thing is often all that is acknowledged. At their worst, labels feel way too much like name-calling.
We do it to ourselves, too, without even realizing it. We think only in terms of our job, our role in the family, our stage in life. Or worse yet, we internalize some less than flattering reference and live as though that is who we are (or all we are).
I’ve struggled with questions of identity since Bill’s death. The roles and labels that previously defined me and meant the most to me – his wife and pastor – no longer apply. Now, to most of the world, most of the time, I’m just a widow. Lately I’ve found myself chafing mightily against the limitations of that word.
Who am I, really?
My dear friend Christianne, (you can check out her work at the Bookwifery website here), who is shepherding me through my latest writing project asks the question this way: “…what is the gift of you? How would you describe the pure you?...”
As I continue to dig deeper into who the “pure” me is after all the major life changes I’ve been through, I’ve followed Vizzini’s advice in The Princess Bride and “gone back to the beginning”. Here’s what I found: in the beginning, according to Genesis, we were made in the image of the Creator, and when the Creator paused and surveyed all that was made, it was pronounced “very good”.
We were made and intended for good, to be salt and light for our broken and hurting world.
Formed in the image of the Creator, we are vessels of the Holy and there is much more to each of us than any one word can describe or contain. (For my money, that list of spiritual gifts in Galatians 5 is merely a starting point and not in the least exclusive.) We are more than our personality traits, more than our talents, more than our occupations, more than our legal or biological connections, more than our interests and hobbies, more than our age, more than our health status, more than the external events that have been visited upon us. Our most important task is to discern our unique identity as children of God, then find a way to offer our particular incarnation of salt and light to the world.
Who are you?
Underneath all the labels you wear, what combination of things make up the essence of you that is yours alone to offer the world? Is it Love? Joy? Creativity? Truth? Beauty? Encouragement? Justice? Compassion? Patience? Kindness? Passion? Clarity? Illumination? Solidarity? Righteous indignation? Hospitality?
To paraphrase Lytton, how do you (or might you) spread salt and light (however you’ve named it) in our “dark and stormy” world?